For 24 years, Deorma Wells has never known what really happened to her daughter, Karen Denise.
“Something bad happened to her and that’s all I can tell anyone,” Wells said.
It was 1994. Denise, as her family called her, was driving across the country from Oklahoma to New Jersey to help a friend in need. The 23-year-old hard-working single mother made it as far as the Pike Motel in Middlesex Township, Cumberland County.
When it was discovered she was missing, searches of that area came up empty. Her rental car was found abandoned on State Route 274 in a remote section of Perry County.
Trooper John Boardman is now investigating the case and says he has many questions about that car.
Why was it left in that location, of all places?
What caused the visible damage to it?
And why was it covered in mud, as if it had been driven off-road?
“The damage to the vehicle is strange,” Boardman said.
Also strange: Denise left most of her belongings inside the hotel room. Boardman says that can only lead investigators to believe that she planned to return.
“Clothing on the floor, luggage on the bed,” Boardman said. “A magazine was there. Cigarettes were in the room.”
Police believe Karen Denise Wells is dead. Boardman says the circumstances surrounding her disappearance are simply too dangerous.
“She’s an attractive female,” Boardman said. “She’s a single mother. She’s nowhere close to home, she’s tired. It’s reported she had been lost several times.”
And what about the friend she was supposed to meet in New Jersey? Melissa Shepard drove to Carlisle and reported Denise missing. She gave a tearful interview to abc27 back in 1994.
“She has a baby who’s a year-and-a-half old,” Shepard said at the time. “You’re talking about a child that’s not going to have a mother.”
Boardman says although Shepard said she had no connection to the Midstate, she did receive a call from the Carlisle area 17 hours before Denise ever arrived there.
What does Boardman make of that?
“It’s a good question,” he said. “She hasn’t been able to answer that question.”
Adding to the mystery of this case, Denise’s rental car had 700 unexplained miles on it and it’s believed she may have been closer to New Jersey at one point, then doubled back to Cumberland County.
Boardman is still searching for those answers and more.
“Someone absolutely knows what happened to Denise,” he said, “and we’ll get to that eventually.”
Deorma is grateful the search for her daughter continues; if not for her, then for her grandson William, who is now 25 and about to be married.
“For him not to ever know what happened to his mom is hard,” she said.
Anyone with information about the disappearance of Karen Denise Wells is asked to contact the Pennsylvania State Police at 717-249-2121.